The biggest military operation in the South Pacific since World War II got underway yesterday when an Australian-led international force poured into the Solomon Islands to prevent it spiraling into anarchy.
The near-bankrupt Solomon Islands government this month issued an appeal to its neighbors to help rein in armed militants and criminals who are extorting money, taking hostages and killing at will.
The contingent of 2,000 troops and 300 police from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Tonga has a mandate to use lethal force if necessary to restore order.
At a ceremony in Australia for departing troops, Fiji Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase allayed fears that Pacific nations might consider the force a form of neocolonialism.
"It enforces Australia's leading role in the Pacific and Fiji is supportive of that role," he said.
A handful of local police and embassy officials greeted the first of 13 Australian C-130 transport planes at Henderson Airport outside the capital, Honiara, just after dawn at the start of "Operation Helpem Fren" -- pidgin English for Help A Friend.
The Australian navy ship HMAS Manoora docked off the coast and barges shuttled equipment and troops ashore. As more troops arrived, hundreds of curious locals turned out to watch.
"We are very happy, this is good, this is marvelous for my country," said Misheko Maetano as he watched troops arrive at the airport.
The parliament of the Solomon Islands unanimously supported the deployment of the foreign troops and police to fight militant gangs and quell a drawn-out conflict among rival islanders that has left hundreds dead.
Some rebels have been armed with high-powered rifles stolen from police armories. Others have fought in loin cloths using homemade guns or weapons dug up from World War II arms dumps.
A peace deal signed in late 2000 failed to stop the violence in the chain of islands 2,250km northeast of Sydney, Australia. Renegade warlords and militants now control much of the main island of Guadalcanal.
One of the most notorious, Harold Keke, said in an interview aired Wednesday on Australian television that he was fighting for independence for Guadalcanal.
He said he took up arms because the government refused to listen to his demands. Keke is holding six hostages after releasing three on Wednesday in an apparent good-will gesture.
"It was obvious that neither the Parliament nor the executive government was in control of things in this country. We knew we were just going into anarchy," said Joses Tuhanuku, a Solomon Islands lawmaker.
Prime Minister Alan Kemakeza was whisked away from Honiara on Tuesday -- reportedly to the HMAS Manoora -- amid reports he was fleeing a possible kidnap attempt. His office issued a statement the next day confirming his departure, but denying he fled to avoid being abducted.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard has said the troops could be on the island for weeks or months, while police will likely maintain a presence there for years.
Australian Federal Police chief Mick Keelty said in Australia that it could take months for his officers to gauge levels of opposition to the force in remote and inaccessible provinces.
"I think we'll have an early understanding of [potential opposition] in Honiara at least over the next 24 to 48 hours," Keelty said. "The roads and infrastructure of the Solomon Islands are not good so before we start building out to the communities we need some of that infrastructure there. I think it may be a matter of weeks or in some cases months before we can actually be confident about the provinces."